Susan Bramlett knows when nap time is near. Cue the fussiness and rubbing of sleepy eyes. Her 2-year-old is equally aware of needing his midday nap; he prompts Bramlett by telling her that it’s “night, night.”
“He is definitely more alert after napping and has a happier disposition,” says Bramlett of Edmonds. “His nap is crucial to his positive behavior and my ability to get things done while he is sleeping.”
Parents know firsthand that naps can make or break the day. The rest is equally important for a child’s health.
“Sleep plays a vital role in the growth and development of children,” says Dr. Jacqueline Hunziker at Swedish Pediatrics clinic at Meadow Creek. “Particularly for younger kids, after a day of learning and exploring, they need sleep for their brains to sort through the information ― new colors, senses, sounds, touch. Without adequate sleep, it can manifest in mood changes, hyperactivity, behavioral issues and more.”
Understand how to improve your child’s nap and you can put your mind, and theirs, at rest.
How much? Clocking needed nap time
Babies and young children require lots of sleep. According to Hunziker, newborns to 3-month-olds need a total of 15 to 20 hours of sleep daily. They generally nap every two to three hours.
Newborns to 3-month-olds need a total of 15 to 20 hours of sleep daily. They generally nap every two to three hours.
“Adults typically sleep at night. Because of young children’s awakenings and feedings, they break it up and sleep during the daytime, too. The body only grows when sleeping, and it helps their development,” says Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson at Seattle Children’s Hospital, who is known for her popular Seattle Mama Doc blog and book.
As a baby nears a year old, she will require 12 to 15 hours of sleep a day. Instead of frequent, shorter naps, children at this age will often consolidate a nap into a two- to four-hour slumber. Children 1 to 5 years old typically require a single daytime nap averaging two hours.
However, needs vary.
“Sleep is so individual, and every child has different needs,” Hunziker says. “Some kids naturally skip naps early on and start sleeping overnight. Know the guidelines of what to expect, but always look at how your child is doing during the daytime to gauge naps.”
Signs of sleepiness
Seattle mom Rebecca Hoogs’ toddler exhibits classic signs of sleepiness. The 3-and-a-half-year-old starts rubbing his eyes, gets cranky and has less patience as tiredness sets in.
Sleepiness can also appear in less expected ways, such as a child pulling at his ears, Swanson says.
“Many kids shut down, but some amp up with wild energy when exhausted,” Swanson says. “If you’re not careful, you might mistake that energy for enthusiasm when it’s actually profound fatigue. The child doesn’t have the same self-control before versus after a nap.”
If you’re unsure whether it’s playfulness or exhaustion, evaluate nighttime sleep patterns. If your child suddenly and abruptly crashes before or at bedtime, consider an additional or a longer daytime nap.
“If they’re overly tired from their day, they tend to have more nighttime awakenings. If they used to be a good nighttime sleeper and that changes, that could be a sign,” Hunziker says.
In terms of that old wisdom of “wearing the kids out” so they nap longer, Hunziker advises against it. If they are generally active, interacting and behaving well and sleeping well at night, let them nap as much, or little, as needed.
Consistently catching ZZZs
A consistent, workable schedule is one of the most important components of successful naps, but it can often seem like the Holy Grail for parents.
Through trial and error, Bramlett found that 12:30 p.m. is the best time for her son.
“It’s very important to keep this schedule, because if he skips the early nap, he’ll take a nap at 3:30 p.m.,” Bramlett says. “Then it’s harder to get him to sleep at night.”
Parents shouldn’t be hard on themselves if regularity seems hard to achieve, especially at first. According to Hunziker, babies begin establishing regular sleep schedules at about 6 months of age. The important thing, experts say, is to lay the groundwork.
”Even with newborns, start establishing some routine,” Hunziker says. “Kids work well with schedules. They know the expectation if there is always a nap around a certain time. It makes it easier for them to fall asleep.”
Kids work well with schedules. They know the expectation if there is always a nap around a certain time. It makes it easier for them to fall asleep.
Of course, work schedules, travel and other realities sometimes disrupt regularity. If you anticipate a change, shift the schedule incrementally and over time, whenever possible.
“Allow yourself a couple days of adjustment. If you need to change a nap from noon to the morning, do it by half-an-hour each day in advance,” Swanson advises. “Use time and duration, but try to keep environmental cues the same.”
Environment: How to sleep like a baby
Rituals are helpful for happy naps. Swanson advises that sleep training can begin as early as 1 month old. Put babies down to nap when they are slightly awake but drowsy.
“Nap time is a great way to help learn the skill of sleeping. Let them fall asleep themselves, so if they awaken, they know how to get back to sleep on their own,” she says.
Apply the same nighttime safety precautions to naps. Babies should nap on their backs in a bare crib without any loose blankets, stuffed animals or bumpers that could impact breathing. Experts warn against naps in swings, walkers or car seats. Young children lack complete control of their heads and necks, and airways can be blocked when heads loll.
Also practice good sleep hygiene. Turn off electronics such as television and iPads; light triggers the brain into remaining awake. Hunziker recommends unplugging well in advance of naps and a full two hours before bedtime.
Adjust the environment to your child’s specific needs. Some children are more sensitive to light and sound. Hoogs notices that a group setting seems to suit her son best. He manages an almost two-hour nap at day care, but he struggles with naps at home.
“At school, I think the group mentality and enforced quiet time eventually translate into a nap for him,” she says.
While sleep is a natural need, good sleep habits are a learned skill. If you have concerns regarding your child’s habits, consult a doctor.
“Everyone has an equal shot at being a good sleeper,” Swanson says. “Taking time when kids are young to provide sleep structure and consistency will help them become better sleepers for life.”